Recording memories for future generations
Photo courtesy of Archival Methods.  These are archival-quality storage boxes.

Family Photos – The archeological dig in my basement

It all started with a simple request from my brother to compile a dozen or so decent photographs of my sister, Lisa, for her upcoming birthday. For the last 10 years I have been the family photographer. Before that I shot loads of pictures, but they weren’t necessarily good.

Photo courtesy of Archival Methods. These are archival-quality storage boxes.

A plumbing disaster in my last home, however, destroyed decades of photographic memories. What was saved was preserved in archival-quality photo storage boxes in no certain order and stored in a dry dark section of the basement. We rarely touch the boxes.

Since I’m the one shooting and downloading 10,000 digital photos a year in my family I’m typically the only one with access to all the backup drives and thumb drives. As such, I’m the only one who looks through all the electronic photos until I post them online.

How hard could it be to sort through a lifetime of family photographs that lay in undocumented piles in boxes? It is a gargantuan task, really, that requires an archeological dig of sorts.

Shame on me. As a personal historian I know how important it is that the family history is preserved. Somehow over the last 12 years I’ve immersed myself into photography, but failed to include even small amounts of information that would help document all these files: a simple one page note (printed or saved) in each file that ID’s the location I shot, the date, the people in the images and an identifying story.  For instance, every wedding I attend where I am the other shooter in the room, always has a backstory of the fun attendees had while the bride and groom were following their blissful agenda. Some of my stories are quite funny.

My children will rely on my memory and writing skills to explain the family lineage and tell the stories behind the photos. I should not wait until I’m deep into retirement to get started because, quite honestly, I don’t know if I’ll remember it all.

I had to approach the search for photos of my sister like a real archeological dig. My equipment list required a fresh notebook to write down new ideas, three different sizes of Post-it notes for relabeling boxes and jotting ID onto small groups of photos, archival gloves for the oldest prints and documents, two colored pens and a large trash can.

Waist-high storage containers of miscellaneous fodder were pushed aside and I started at the top of the storage shelf. One by one photo boxes began uncovering my family history in 4 by 6 rectangles: Parties, picnics, Christmas mornings, military photos, shots of artwork, school pictures, cats and historic events such as Hands Across America.

A shot of my sister Lisa, my grandfather, Louis J. Camuti Sr., and me in 1978.

Photos from my childhood were mixed in with photos from the 1990’s and 2006. It was a mess. Just like a dig all the dirt sifted through gets moved to another location while you’re looking for the prize.

I lined a table with boxes and created a series of new categories:

  • Elders
  • Siblings Growing Up
  • High School and Sports
  • Brothers and Sisters (including special events)
  • Nieces and Nephews
  • The Girls – birth to 2011
  • Our Family – 2003 to present
  • Girl Scouts – both troops
  • Special Occasions
  • LIVESTRONG (5 years of charitable events I now have a photo box full of shots)

It occurred to me that each of these categories contained a whole new level of storytelling. With further organization I could tackle these projects in small chunks of time, an issue I discussed in an earlier posting. Maybe they don’t all need to be written up, but some do.

For instance, I could take the Siblings Growing Up box and dedicate an hour a week to writing about my youth and the neighborhood I grew up in.

Maybe it’s time to write a charitable life story about why I volunteer for the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s LIVESTRONG Challenge each year and how a simple request from a terminal family member changed my outlook on community and my definition of legacy planning.

When my brother Joe, the youngest of nine children, got married it was a special event for many reasons. He and his wife Christine went out of their way to make it a special event for our mother, too. The weekend was filled with both amusing and sentimental moments. Perhaps I should tell those stories for the ages.

For my nephew Ben’s children, I should tell the story of their Dad’s return from the Iraq War. He was only home for a few hours before he had to return to base. He asked me to take a photo of his boots, because he walked into Iraq in them and returned home wearing them.

This process took me six hours to clear off and reorganize three storage shelves. I tossed two large bags of unnecessary junk and bad photos that won’t be missed. As with every successful archeological dig it allowed me the opportunity to discover long-lost pieces of my past, examine everything carefully and ask what else I can learn from the process. What is the story behind these photos?

Yes, I did find my prizes – a dozen good photos of Lisa, including one with my grandfather.

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